When torture goes unpunished

August 11, 2014

Barack Obama may have admitted that the U.S. used torture--but we're still far from knowing the facts, much less anyone being held responsible, writes Nicole Colson.

"WE TORTURED some folks."

Talk about an understatement.

In advance of the upcoming release of a Senate Intelligence Committee report on "enhanced interrogation techniques," Barack Obama admitted that the U.S. engaged in the torture of "war on terror" detainees following the September 11 attacks--something that former Bush administration officials in particular and Republicans in general still hotly deny.

Despite the folksy language, the fact that a sitting U.S. president openly uses the word "torture"--which carries potential legal implications--to describe actions that took place under the administration of his predecessor is unprecedented. But Obama immediately followed up his statement by dismissing the idea that anyone should be held accountable for torturing detainees.

The release of the Senate committee's report has been delayed as the lawmakers and the CIA debate what details to redact in the name of "national security." But that didn't stop Obama from telling reporters that the torture of detainees was understandable--because intelligence officials were under pressure in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and we shouldn't judge those who engaged in torture--or who created torture policies--too harshly. "I understand why it happened...It is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had," he said.

President Obama
President Obama (Bill Ingalls)

The family of Gul Rahman might not be as nonchalant as Obama regarding what was done in the name of the "tough job" of fighting terrorism.

Rahman was taken captive in Islamabad on October 29, 2002, while staying with a friend before a medical appointment. The house was stormed, and both men later ended up being detained at the "Salt Pit"--an abandoned brick factory near Kabul, Afghanistan, that the CIA repurposed as a secret "black site" prison.

There, according to a 2010 investigation by the Associated Press, Rahman was dragged around his cell before being shackled and doused with water. Left naked from the waist down in his cell overnight as temperatures dropped, Gul Rahman was dead by morning.

According to a 2011 Associated Press report, an inexperienced CIA operative named "Matt" ordered Rahman's torture. A CIA inspector general's report later faulted both Matt and a CIA station chief named "Paul" in Rahman's death--and recommended that it be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution. A review board comprised of senior CIA officers later recommended that Matt be disciplined.

Not only was neither man ever prosecuted, both were promoted. According to the Associated Press:

Since Rahman's death, Paul's career has advanced quickly. He is chief of the Near East Division, the section that overseas spy operations in Iraq, Iran and other Middle East countries. It's one of the most important jobs in the agency. Matt has completed assignments in Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he was deputy chief of tribal operations.

DURING HIS statements to the press, Obama also went on to say, "When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. That needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to as a country take responsibility for that, so that hopefully, we don't do it again in the future."

Calling Obama's comments a "disgrace" and "despicable," Republican Liz Cheney claimed to Fox News that Obama "is expending more time, more energy, more passion, more aggressive activity in targeting and going after patriots, heroes, CIA officers and others who kept us safe after 9/11."

But in fact, the Obama administration has repeatedly shielded those responsible for the torture of detainees.

As the New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal wrote, Liz Cheney not only was wrong about Obama's supposed "aggressive targeting" of "CIA officers and others," but she owes Obama a debt of personal gratitude--for keeping her dad, one of the staunchest supporter of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the Bush administration, from being prosecuted:

Mr. Obama did ban the use of torture after he took office, and he has said more than once that torture includes waterboarding. But that's about all the time he spent "targeting and going after" the people who carried out Mr. Bush's orders to torture al Qaeda suspects.

In fact, Ms. Cheney should be thanking the president for the role he played in keeping her father out of court. From the start of his tenure, he has prevented any serious investigation of the Bush administration's interrogation and detention policies. He instituted some changes in the military tribunal system at Guantánamo Bay, but not enough to make them functioning, credible courts of justice. He has failed to keep his promise to close that prison camp. And his lawyers have blocked every attempt to open the courthouse doors to those who were illegally detained, abused and, yes, tortured by government agents.

As David Corn reported in Mother Jones in 2010, Obama's commitment to protecting the architects of U.S. torture policies extended to putting direct pressure on at least one foreign government.

A 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy in Madrid to the U.S. State Department, leaked by WikiLeaks, detailed how just after Obama took office, his administration leaned heavily on Spanish officials, including prosecutor Javier Zaragoza, to quash a complaint by a Spanish human rights group to indict six former Bush administration officials. According to Corn, in April 2009, Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez:

met with the acting Spanish foreign minister, Angel Lossada. The Americans, according to this cable, "underscored that the prosecutions would not be understood or accepted in the U.S. and would have an enormous impact on the bilateral relationship" between Spain and the United States. Here was a former head of the GOP and a representative of a new Democratic administration (headed by a president who had decried the Bush-Cheney administration's use of torture) jointly applying pressure on Spain to kill the investigation of the former Bush officials.

The following day, Spain's attorney general announced he would not support the complaint.

AS FOR the long-awaited release of the report on "enhanced interrogation techniques," Salon.com's Marcy Wheeler writes:

The torture report, when it is revealed, will confirm a lot of what we've known for at least five years. CIA lied to Congress about the program. The program wasn't effective. The CIA did more than was laid out in the torture memos approved by the Department of Justice.

It's laughable to call this "enhanced" interrogation, given that it proved less effective--again, according to the Senate torture report and other independent reports--than plain old interrogation.

Those details all condemn the CIA and the Bush administration's torture architects and the failures of oversight that let torture continue for years. They serve as a warning that the most aggressive responses to terrorism may in fact be counterproductive.

But whether Americans will ever find out what was done in their names to detainees is in doubt--much less whether anyone will face prosecution for it. The CIA and Senate are currently in a battle over the final version of the report--which the CIA is insisting be heavily redacted. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a statement that at least 15 percent of the report has been blacked out:

I was disappointed to learn of the CIA's extensive use of redactions on the Committee's executive summary. Redactions are supposed to remove names or anything that could compromise sources and methods, not to undermine the source material so that it is impossible to understand. Try reading a novel with 15 percent of the words blacked out--it can't be done properly.

This is par for the course when it comes to the question of torture and accountability post-9/11. One thing that's not a mystery, however, is the names of those who authorized torture at the highest levels of government--beginning with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and moving on down the line to military officials like Donald Rumsfeld and former Justice Department officials like John Yoo, who wrote the memo justifying the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" like waterboarding.

Also implicated are prominent members of both parties in Congress, like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was "fully briefed" on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, but raised no public objection to the crimes she knew were being carried out in the name of "fighting terrorism."

Obama can't have it both ways. He can't acknowledge that the U.S. engaged in torture--a crime against international law--while in the same breath trying to downplay the role that prominent officials played in enabling and promoting torture and to say that the public should essentially "get past it."

It's not a matter of "sanctimony" to insist that those who engaged in acts of torture should be brought to trial. It's a matter of justice.

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